Romeo and Juliet through Mantle of the Expert…


Due to the popular demand (of one person), I’m writing up my ideas (so far) for using Mantle of the Expert to teach Romeo and Juliet. It’s going swimmingly with my Year 9s so here’s a little bit of information about what we’re up to.

Firstly, if you don’t know what Mantle of the Expert is, get yourself to the website run by the brilliant Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor. You’ll find articles, details of training, planning documents and resources and all sorts of inspiring stuff to get you going. I first encountered Mantle through the late and wonderful Dorothy Heathcote, who understood children and learning like no other human being I’ve ever met. She knew that the gate to knowledge was called ‘play’ and that play consisted of hard work, determination, grit, imagination, and a need to know that was rooted in ‘the urgency of now’ : that exploration and explanation were two sides of the same coin.’ What is the significance?’ she would say, ‘What are the implications?’ ‘What do we need to know in order to do?’ ‘What do we need to do, in order to know?’

In short, putting on a Mantle, is to put on a context in which learning takes place in an ‘imagined reality’. As a teacher, the starting question might be ‘Who in the world needs to know this stuff I’m having to teach?’ And then, having answered that one, you build an organisation or enterprise, in which this knowledge is expertly known and can therefore be imparted to others – a client. As experts, the children have to equip themselves with the language, information and solution focused thinking that this organisation would need in order to meet the demands of their client. If I’m not making this clear, do visit the website, where people far more articulate than I explain it well! As far as Shakespeare goes…

We’re studying Romeo and Juliet. They don’t quite know it yet – some suspect that’s where we are going, but others don’t. We ‘Mantlers’ don’t really go for the objectives on the board approach – the learning is negotiated and acquired together as tension and urgency build. So the children have been set up in role as a crime investigation unit. They are made up of a variety of experts, but are not, at present, part of the Verona police force. They specialise in crimes which are media sensitive. They have begun by signing confidentiality contracts and submitting their CVs for security checks. They have to submit their bags, phones and coats to security on arrival and are given only paper and pens in the room, which they have to file and hand in at the end of the lesson. They are told that there is a media embargo on the case. And once they have established their identity as a group and their skill set, they get to meet the client.

They have been called in by the Royal Family of Verona to investigate the death of one of their family. His body was found in the tomb of the Capulet family with those of two other teenagers. The family, alerted by a page, were first on the scene and called in their own forensic experts and investigators. They are concerned that the city’s police force is riddled with corruption – most officers are in the pockets of one of two rival families in the city – the Montagues or the Capulets and they want to ensure a fair and unbiased investigation. The representative from the family submits a dossier of information.

In groups of 4, the students open their files. Inside are differentiated pathology reports or witness statements. They have 30 minutes to read and note key findings of their own, share with shoulder partners (pair) and then as a four (square) and draw up an action plan. One is a report for Juliet Capulet, age 13. Cause of death: single stab wound to the heart. She is found in the tomb with her arm flung over the body of a third, as yet unidentified, male. Toxology reports suggest she had high levels of a natural plant sedative in her blood stream. The sedative is rare and not available over the counter. She would have had to see a registered apothecary to have it and there is no record of her seeing one. A dagger was found in her hand – it has the royal crest engraved on its blade. Blood samples show that both hers and the prince’s blood was on the blade. All three victim’s finger prints were on the handle.

The second victim is a royal prince, Paris. Large deposits of blood were found on the ground outside the tomb. Drag marks suggest the body was taken into the tomb. It is not clear whether he died inside or outside the tomb, but he died from a fatal stab wound to the stomach. His body was formally laid out, arms crossed, next to Juliet – as if someone took care to arrange him.

The third victim, a young male, is yet to be identified. Cause of death – a fast acting poison which distorts and disfigures the face. This has made identification within such secrecy difficult. The body was found on its side, facing Juliet. Her arm was placed over the body. His fingerprints were found on the dagger.

A witness statement reports seeing a scuffle outside the tomb between two young men. The witness reports seeing two other boys, – one hiding behind bushes, another fleeing the scene wearing the royal uniform. The witness also thinks she saw, some time later, a man and the boy who was in the bushes, hurrying away from the scene. She is convinced that the man was wearing a monk’s habit.

I’ve cut the details short on this, but you get the idea – they are starting off by weighing up the evidence. We’re starting at the end which is allowed, I think, since Shakespeare pretty much gives the plot away in the prologue. By working our way through the text episodically and not chronologically, we are beginning to open up the possibility of engaging in the why and not just the what.

In our next lesson, we ‘switch on’ the news to find that the media have hold of the story – we play the opening of Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant adaptation of the play, and, having cursed the leak, we explore what the prologue adds to our knowledge of the case. At this point, a letter arrives from the pathologist confirming the identity of the third victim as Romeo Montague.

Here are some of the questions they ask:-

1. The media only know there are two victims. Which ones are they referring to as star crossed lovers – Juliet and Paris or Juliet and Romeo?
2. The media think the deaths are suicides – does our evidence support this claim?
3. The media speak of an ancient grudge between two families – is this a grudge between the Capulet and the Montague family or the Capulet and the Royal family?
4. Why do they talk like that?

In answer to Question 4, one of the devices for setting up the unit as outsiders to Verona, is that the language can be explored as if it is simply another ‘dialect’ for now. We can return to it later, but for now we can say that it’s going to be pretty hard to get used to understanding the way that people speak ‘around here’ but that it gets easier if you try to break it down…

Their questions now are beginning to drive the work forward. They draw up a list of witnesses they think they need to speak to. I have to be ready as teacher to leap into a variety of roles at a moment’s notice so I need to know the play well. As confidence grows, I can start to set some of them up in role with briefing notes. There are a couple of children now starting to say they have some prior knowledge of the play and so I can give them extracts to help them prepare for police interviews. In addition, we can feed in ‘discovered’ evidence. Juliet’s speech ‘Gallop apace…’ in Act 3, Scene 2 becomes a page from her diary, torn out and found in a secret compartment in her dressing table. Similarly, other sections of the text are found in letters and diaries, seeding in evidence.

This is as far as we’ve got so far. I’m not suggesting that we don’t read the play – we will – but by the time we do, they’ll be hungry for it because they were IN it – they will view themselves as part of the narrative – a secret, shadowy force that is never seen or written of – but a part nonetheless. And seeing an investment – a relevance – in the text is half of the battle when studying Shakespeare. That’s the idea anyway.

I’m not suggesting that this is a perfect mantle – I know Dorothy would probably say it’s more of a ‘rolling role’ as getting the flow of mantle is difficult in a secondary setting, but if you want to see it in full glory, embraced across the curriculum, then visit Woodrow Primary School in the Midlands, or Bealings in Sufflolk – their entire curriculum is built around children solving MoE problems from reception class through to KS2. I think it’s well worth taking through to secondary settings though. Why is it, I wonder, that as young people get closer to the reality of leaving school and entering the adult world, we alienate the curriculum from those possibilities and assume they will just happen upon, or discover a professional life? Mantle of the Expert allows children to try on different jobs for size. It raises aspiration, confidence and language. My Year 9s, welcoming Friar Lawrence into the classroom, without any prior warning, suddenly said:-

‘Mr. Lawrence, thank you for agreeing to come in and see us. We should warn you, before we start, that you are under suspicion at this time of involvement in a murder case. You may not wish to speak, but if you do, anything you say, may be taken down as evidence against you’.

It might not be quite word perfect, but it demonstrated a formal use of language that would not normally be present in the classroom. If for no other reason than this, I’ll continue to weave MoE into my work whenever I can.